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Prisons That Work

There's more than one way to run a prison. Here are just a few of the possibilities

McKean federal correctional facility in Pennsylvania reminds visitors of a college campus. It's housed in a low-profile building, decorated inside in a gray and salmon Navajo motif. Inmates stroll on concrete walkways to classes in basic reading skills, masonry, carpentry, horticulture, barbering, cooking, and catering.

McKean may be the most successful medium-security prison in the country, and it costs taxpayers about 25 percent less than other prisons like it. There have been no escapes, no homicides, no sexual assaults, no suicides since the prison opened in 1989.

What's the secret? Warden Dennis Luther believes people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Recreation and education programs are essential to keep inmates busy and focused on long-term goals – and they're cost effective. He believes that “cost-effective management is possible only because programs keep inmates busy.”

But the future for McKean's program is unclear; Warden Luther has retired, and the pressure to drop prison education programs has increased.

 

Prison without walls

For almost 40 years, nearly 300 murderers have lived in the southern state of Kerala, India, without bars and fences. There are no guards armed with guns or clubs, and no fences or surveillance towers contain the neat complex of buildings tucked in the jungle.

How are the prisoners treated? “We have to treat them nicely,” the head warden laughs. “They are all murderers.”

In the early 1960s, a government commission recommended open prisons that are aimed at reform. Viewed as an experiment then, the open prison has had only one escape and one repeat offender in all its years of operation. Inmates consider it a privilege to be sent to the open prison. Every convict begins his or her sentence in a closed prison, and those who exhibit good behavior are transferred to the open prison.

While in prison, the inmates become part of a self-supporting community, but there are no trained therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, or social workers, and wardens don't rely on academic theories. The program is simple and down-to-earth: it's little more than a microcosm of the relatively healthy community life of Kerala. This village concept strongly parallels principles outlined by Mahatma Gandhi during his incarceration in 1930 to guide the daily life of Satyagraha Ashram.

 

Glamour slammer

A revolution is taking place inside San Francisco's Jail No. 7 and Jail No. 8, known as the “glamour slammer.” The 700 cons inside, doing time for everything from drug possession to armed robbery, mostly stay in open dormitories and spend up to 12 hours each day in some of over 50 separate treatment, counseling, training, and education programs.

Prisoners can join counseling groups, such as Tools for Healing, Drama Therapy, and Gay Life Skills, or take yoga and meditation classes. Those in violence or drug-treatment programs receive acupuncture to reduce their cravings for drugs and their violent impulses.

The idea is to break the cycle of violence by transforming the typical jailhouse culture of humiliation and violence into one of dignity and healing. The jury is still out on the program's success, but early signs are positive. Repeat offenses among women in the intensive drug therapy program have dropped by 15 percent, and recidivism among graduates has dropped to just 15 percent. While the San Francisco system as a whole averages six fights a week, Jails 7 and 8 have had only three minor incidents in three years.

 

 


Adapted from “A Model Prison,” by Robert Worth, from Atlantic Monthly November 1995; “Prison without Walls,” by Jim Merkel, from In Context, Spring 1994; and “Politically Correct Punishment” by Jeffrey Banner, Mother Jones' MoJo Wire, March 2000.

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